This was my second time trying to read Guns Germs and Steel and I still could not get through it. It attempts to explain why Europeans went out and colonized the rest of world and not the other way around. The book argues it was because of three factors the Europeans had on their side just by sheer geographic coincidence. They had steel tools, they were immune to a lot of diseases, and they had guns. It wasn’t because they were smarter, they were better, or European civilizations were more advanced than others. I didn’t read the entire book, but that’s the main argument.
This should be one of my favorite books given my dorky love of all things natural history and science, but sadly, I just cannot finish this book for the life of me. Some paragraphs are interesting and engaging while others are repetitive and boring. (The chapter on animal domestication was really good.) It seems like the author never really gets to the meat of his argument but he takes pages and pages to set up his argument. So, whatever, I’m done trying to like this book.
The good thing about this book is that it makes for very interesting conversations with some super smart people – my work buddy Sashana and Manny. Which lead to the following thoughts: .
Civilizations all over the world have been colonizing and taking over neighboring villages and building empires forever. But what makes European colonization different is that they didn’t just take over their neighbors, they took over half the world. Areas like North Africa, the Middle East, China, India, and central America all had civilizations that were just has advanced, just as populous as western Europe. So why was it the Europeans who left their own shores in search of more? Maybe because they had less.
Europeans started exploring the Americas in search of trading routes that would bring them wealth and in natural resources that would make them more powerful. Maybe this is because they did not have enough natural resources of their own. England, France, Spain: these were the countries that did most of initial colonizing. Portugal too. These are pretty small countries compared to China, India and Mexico, which, I think, have larger landmasses. Larger landmass means more land diversity and more diverse natural resources. Maybe this is why China, Mexico and India didn’t have to go around the world looking for them and England, France and Spain did.
This sort of reframes the argument. Instead of asking what made this civilization so advanced that they were able to conquer half the world, maybe we should be asking what was this civilization lacking that they had to get it from everyone else?
Maybe this concept is explored in the book. Maybe this argument has been made before. I don’t know. But fighting over control natural resources is still going on, especially over oil. Who’s going out and doing the fighting and invading other countries? It’s not the countries that already have their own oil, it’s those who don’t have it and want it for power and wealth.
So in summary – interesting topic, uninteresting book. If anyone else out there in the blog world can recommend another book about this topic let me know. In the meantime, I’ve picked up a book about Darwin by my favorite science writer David Quammen that I’m really looking forward to.